An impressive body of evidence published this week reveals the answer to a mystery that has puzzled plant scientists for more than 30 years: the role of the molecule suberin in the leaves of some of our most productive crops. This discovery could be the key to engineering better crops and ensuring future food security.
Agriculture plays a key role towards providing food for the planet but it is also expected to be one of the world’s most impacted areas from climate change. Improving photosynthesis might be our best option to achieve global food security and researchers know how to do it.
The flag leaf is the last to emerge, indicating the transition from crop growth to grain production. Photosynthesis in this leaf provides the majority of the carbohydrates needed for grain filling—so it is the most important leaf for yield potential. A team of researchers found that some flag leaves of different varieties of rice transform light and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates better than others. This finding could potentially open new opportunities for breeding higher yielding rice varieties.
Researchers have found a way to engineer more efficient versions of the plant enzyme Rubisco by using a red-algae-like Rubisco from a bacterium. For 50 years scientists have striven to boost the activity of Rubisco, a promising target to increase crop production, as it controls how much and how fast plants fix carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into sugars and energy during photosynthesis.
Drought causes major crop losses in many regions of the world, and climate change threatens to exacerbate the occurrence of drought in temperate as well as arid regions. Researchers used a sophisticated mathematical modelling approach to study the effects of introducing CAM photosynthesis, which is used by plants that are able to thrive in arid conditions, into C3 plants, which tend to thrive only in areas where sunlight intensity and temperatures are moderate and water is plentiful.
Photosynthesis in conifer forests is one of the most important carbon sinks on a global scale. Unlike broadleaf trees, conifers are evergreen and retain their photosynthesis structure throughout the year. Especially in late winter, the combination of freezing temperatures and high light intensity exposes the needles to oxidative damage that could lead to the destruction of molecules and cell structures that contribute to photosynthesis. Researchers have discovered a previously unknown mechanism that enables spruce trees to adapt to winter.
Research could lead to major improvements in crop production. The new study shows a new way to help study and ramp up photosynthesis. The breakthrough is based on revisiting an original, billion-year-old strategy in plants. It looks specifically at rubisco activity – a crucial part of the process according to authors.
For plants, sunlight can be a double-edged sword. They need it to drive photosynthesis, the process that allows them to store solar energy as sugar molecules, but too much sun can dehydrate and damage their leaves. A primary strategy that plants use to protect themselves from this kind of photodamage is to dissipate the extra light as heat. However, there has been much debate over the past several decades over how plants actually achieve this.